To understand why, I turned to Seymour Lipset’s and Gary Marks’ book It Didn’t Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States (2000).
Lipset and Marks point to “American exceptionalism” as the overriding explanation for lack of a socialist workers movement. Here the term does not refer to triumphalist meaning adopted by neo-conservatives or evangelicals (“God’s Own Country”) but rather as defined by Tocqueville and others as distinct from Europe:
"The United States, as noted by Alexis de Tocqueville and Friedrich Engels, among many visitors to America, is an "exceptional" country, one uniquely different from the more traditional societies and status-bound nations of the Old World. The term "American exceptionalism," first formulated by Tocqueville in the 1830s, and since used in general comparative societal analyses, became widely applied after World War I in efforts to account for the weakness of working-class radicalism in the United States."
Lipset and Marks come up with four primary reasons for why the United States, alone among industrial societies, lack a significant socialist movement or labor party:
- The Two Party System: America is exceptional for preserving its two-party duopoly for well over a century. Both the Democrats and Republicans have established deep roots in working class communities cultivating ethno-religious identities and providing patronage. Because the main parties were so porous, they easily absorbed occasional attempts to mobilize around class, beginning with the Workingmen’s parties of the 1830s. Third Party efforts have always failed. Eugene Debs ran for president for the Socialist Party five times and even at his peak in 1912 only garnered 6% of the popular vote.
- Libertarian Mindset: American workers have always been more sympathetic to libertarianism and suspicious of state control:
"The anti-statist, anti-authoritarian component of American ideology, derived from Jefferson’s declaration of Independence, remains an underlying source of the weakness of socialism in the United States.”
- Diverse/Stratified Working Class: The United States differs from other ‘neo-European’ societies in the diversity of its immigrants. As a result, the working class was exceptionally stratified by ethnicity, religion, and language. The authors point out that socialism did achieve some success in some ethnically cohesive communities. Examples would be the native-born Protestants in Oklahoma — a socialist hotbed in early 2oth Century, or the radical East European immigrants on New York’s Lower East Side.
- Schism Between Unions and Party: Lipset and Marks discuss this at great length. For a number of reasons, the American Federation of Labor was hostile to socialism, and as a result, any labor or socialist party was deprived of a solid base in the trade unions. The dogmatism and extreme radicalism of the Socialist Party alienated the base of the unions. For example, the militant atheism of the party alienated the sizeable proportion of workers who were Catholic (in religion or culture). Irish immigrants, in particular, were hostile to socialism.
There are certainly gaps in Lipset’s and Marks’ analysis: they have little to say about the racism that prevented American labor from joining the struggle for civil rights that could have revived a socialist movement. And the book needs to be updated to cover the impact of accelerating globalization and the automation/digitization of production and service jobs.
What are the chances that things could change and America would see a greater acceptance of socialism? Not great, as far as I can see: the continued decline in union membership and the rise of the gig economy are just two factors that will inhibit a new socialist movement.